Very loosely inspired by Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’, Powell and Pressburger’s wartime drama ‘A Canterbury Tale’ (1944) was made during one of the most extraordinary consecutive directorial ‘runs’ ever: ‘One of Our Aircraft Is Missing’ (1942), ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’ (1943), ‘A Canterbury Tale’ (1944), ‘I Know Where I’m Going!’ (1945), ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ (1946), ‘Black Narcissus’ (1947), and ‘The Red Shoes’ (1948). All seven of them are British classics. And A Canterbury Tale is no different.
The film opens with a Chaucerian knight, trekking through a forest on horseback, who lets free a bird of prey. And then, in a truly extraordinary moment of cinema, the swooping bird becomes a WW2 aircraft, and the knight becomes a tank. Technology and people have developed and 600 years of history have past.
It is a remarkable moment of both magic and originality. It is also indicative of how under-appreciated Powell and Pressburger are. This scene has been forgotten from the public consciousness – never even remembered in the first place – yet when Stanley Kubrick referenced this moment in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968) with a bone spinning in mid-air and becoming a spaceship (similarly indicating the passage of time and the development of technology), he is acclaimed as a genius for his originality.
The rest of the tale leaves behind any Chaucerian plot, but does keep the tendency for eccentric characters. A small town near Canterbury is being terrorised by “the glueman”, a mysterious man who pours glue over women’s hair at night. There is probably a reference to a particular Chaucerian character here, which sadly went straight over my head.
Into this town arrives a US soldier who gets off at the wrong station, and a British woman from the city who has come to work as a land girl for the war effort. And as they begin to turn their attention to investigating the Scooby Doo-esque glueman, they find themselves caught up and encapsulated in the nature of English rural life.
The film is a love letter to the English countryside, landscape, and pastoral life. Characters regularly take walks up hillsides, just to admire the views. The film shows rural life and its traditions in great detail, and with great affection. And we see Canterbury Cathedral, a permanence in the country for so many centuries.
The war, meanwhile, is relegated to a mere subplot. This indicates exactly what Powell and Pressburger are trying to say. The war is an incidental feature. It does not obstruct any of the characters’ lives. It is a mere passing inconvenience. In one hilltop scene characters discuss a remarkable view, but do not mention the dozens of barrage balloons which litter the sky. P&P – which they should never be referred to as – are telling us that England and English life will continue as it always has done, from 600 years ago in the medieval era, through the present era unaffected by world war, and forever into the future.
On a side note, for those worried about their ignorance of Scotland and Scottish life, they dealt with that in their following film, I Know Where I’m Going! And for those worried about their ignorance of Wales and Welsh life, as far as I can tell, they didn’t give a shit.
Perhaps A Canterbury Tale lacks the same magical spark as the greatest of their works, A Matter Of Life Or Death, or The Red Shoes, for instance. But this in no way should be seen as a dismissive comment. A Canterbury Tale still contains some remarkable moments from a pair of remarkable directors, especially the moment that Stanley Kubrick clearly thought so highly of.